The NBA’s new regulations on load management are more harmful than they seem
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Last week, the NBA announced a new set of rules that aim to redefine the whole system of what teams and coaches call “load management” and how players rest.
The whole thing is a somewhat tangled can of worms that takes a bit of time to explain, so let’s start now. First, the NBA’s main schedule of games during its regular season is set at 82 nights spread out over nearly six months. (Take note because that’ll be an important point later.) Because that is a lot of games, coaches have started in the past decade to rest their top players to preserve their health, calling it the corporate-ish euphemism “load management.”
It’s a concept unheard of by older basketball fans, who prize the qualities of toughness and endurance, to the point where the athletes they watch and admire inevitably get run down. And because everyone wants to keep watching these big stars do their thing on the court, there has been a mounting backlash against players who dare to take time off and the coaches who enable it. Hence, the new rules set by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, which will see teams get fined even more if popular players rest too much.
There actually have been rules about load management since 2017. Now, however, they’ve become more stringent
There actually have been rules about load management since 2017. Now, however, they’ve become more stringent. The NBA now clearly defines what they call “star” players, with the loose definition being that they must have been an NBA All-Star or All-NBA player in the past three seasons. Teams can’t have more than one star player resting on the bench for one game, and they must be available for nationally televised and in-season tournament games. They also can’t rest for the remainder of the season should a team’s playoff chances be foregone (i.e. whether they make it or not).
Lastly, the most reasonable ask by the load management rules here is that any resting players should still be visible to fans on the sidelines.
Putting the entertainment in sports
Although an outsider may think that these rules could, on paper, mean strengthening parity in the league, the NBA has all but admitted that this is all to keep the league viable as an entertainment product.
Fans have spoken up about players resting too much, and I get it. NBA tickets are not cheap to come by, and many fork over their hard-earned cash to see their favorite players play. To name popular examples, guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant put on a thrilling show for basketball fans, and they might even convert nonbelievers to the cause.
Here, the recently concluded FIBA World Cup on Philippine soil saw thousands of people get into a Slovenia game all because hot contemporary superstar Luka Dončić was playing. The NBA draws millions of dollars all around the world as a TV and live product because its players are the pinnacle of professional basketball. Simply put, sports are powerful because of their entertainment factor.
Why do coaches manage load?
Although I know they understand, sometimes it feels like basketball fans don’t really get load management and why it’s a thing in the first place.
Remember when I said that the regular NBA season consists of 82 games? That’s a lot of action. Starters and top players play for at least around 25 to 35 minutes of a 48-minute (in regulation) game, and that’s without overtime adding more. Then there’s practice and training sessions that aren’t broadcast, and that all makes up a grueling almost daily physical regimen that many fans don’t see. All of that physical activity is why players have to rest, especially if the team could run well without them.
Going nonstop on that kind of grind at least six months a year takes a huge physical and mental toll on players. NBA players do their thing at a relatively high risk of injury because of how much they play and put themselves through.
It’s not just bones, muscles, and joints breaking down, too. The game also takes a toll on mental health due to the constant grind and the ever-present pressure to be the best you can be. It doesn’t avoid the biggest of the league’s stars, with guys like recent NBA champion Giannis Antetokounmpo confessing that he needed to take a break to rest both his mind and body. All-Star player DeMar DeRozan of the Chicago Bulls has also admitted to struggling with his mental health.
Going nonstop on that kind of grind at least six months a year takes a huge physical and mental toll on players. NBA players do their thing at a relatively high risk of injury because of how much they play and put themselves through
As an athlete (though not on the level of professional NBA players) I already know what it feels like to burn out, and I wasn’t even training and performing every day, only just almost every week. Fans constantly take the well-being of the players they love for granted just because they want to be entertained—and that part I also get because this life and the real world is already hard, painful, and depressing enough as it is.
Curbing load management for the almighty dollar?
But that doesn’t mean we get to take it out and pressure our favorite sports stars to do their thing for our entertainment.
What bothers me most about the new rules on load management is that it ultimately protects not the players who comprise the entertainment the league provides, but the league’s own selfish interests—by way of the fans’ own selfish interests.
I would understand it if the rules were meant to protect parity and competitiveness in the game, but it’s literally to make sure that the NBA is a viable entertainment product. I’d be very pissed if I was told to go play a game not because we have to win and get closer to a prestigious championship but because a fan paid a ticket to come see me. That’s the fastest way for a player to burn out.
Yes, the fans are the lifeblood of sports, but without the players you don’t get to watch anything at all. Players can’t give what they have to give and pour from an empty pot, and I feel a real fan would understand it if an important player—one that I admire—needed to take a break for their own well-being.
There are people who accuse some players of “abusing” the concept of load management, like NBA champion Kawhi Leonard who infamously sits out stretches of games. My take is that we never really know exactly what people are going through physically and mentally, and we don’t know what they really need in order to perform at their best. Most fans don’t have an idea of what a professional athlete’s real life is like, and I’d rather give a resting player the benefit of the doubt.
I don’t want to tell a fan how they should be fans of the game, but if they want their team (or the team their favorite player is on, if they’re not fans of a particular team) to win the big one—or have a good chance at it with a nice run in the postseason—they should understand what it takes to do that. And sometimes, what that takes is resting, a short-term retreat for a long-term advance.
The truth is resting isn’t the problem with the NBA. People need to rest, and a society that’s been drilled on the importance of constant hustle is still coming to grips with the idea that rest is crucial. The real problem is still the protracted regular season, which is long because the networks pay that much for months of sports programming on TV. Capitalism is both blessing and wrecking people, but that’s a whole other conversation and article.
In the meantime, let people rest—it may not end in no more star players to watch, but athletes are human beings who need it, too.